369 women have been elected as Members of Parliament since 1918 when the first woman was elected to the House of Commons. This is around 8% of all MPs over the period.
In the twenty first century steps have been taken to increase the representation of women in the House of Commons but there are still only 147 women MPs among the 650 Members of the House today. There have been fewer women MPs in total since 1918 than there are men currently sitting in the House of Commons.
Even before the political parties came under pressure from the Speaker’s Conference on Parliamentary representation to change their selection policies, there were calls for changes. In 2006 the Power Inquiry argued that if the House of Commons were to accurately reflect the diversity of the population there would be 51 MPs from minority ethnic backgrounds and 320 women MPs.
The Speaker’s Conference
The Speaker’s Conference on Parliamentary Representation started work in 2008 “to consider and make recommendations for rectifying the disparity between the representation of women and ethnic minorities in the House of Commons and their representation in the UK population at large”.
The Conference published two interim reports in 2009 and suggested in the first that increasing the diversity of MPs would make the House of Commons “a more just, legitimate and effective legislature”. It recommended that in constituencies where the sitting MP was not contesting the next general election the political parties should promote equality by selecting at least 50% women as candidates.
The Conference took evidence from the three main party leaders and noted that all of them had expressed their commitment to increased diversity in the House of Commons. The Labour Party was committed to the use of all-women shortlists and in 2006 the Conservative Party had instituted a ‘priority’ list or ‘A-list’ for candidates, along with a requirement for local Conservative Associations to select candidates from the list; short lists of candidates were also required to be gender-balanced.
The Conference suggested in its final report that if the political parties failed to make significant progress on women’s representation at the 2010 general election, “Parliament should give serious consideration to the introduction of prescriptive quotas to ensure that all parties adopt some form of equality guarantee”. The conference did not define ‘significant’, but in 2010 143 women were elected (22% of the House of Commons), the highest number and proportion ever. 128 had been elected at the general election of 2005.
The House of Commons held a debate on 12 January 2012 in line with the Speaker’s Conference recommendation that there should be a debate every two years to review progress. Dame Anne Begg MP (Vice-Chair of the Speaker’s Conference) spoke of the Conference’s recommendations which put pressure on the political parties to consider measures to ensure greater equality; these included a scheme requiring political parties to publish diversity data on candidate selections. The Government responded that this should be voluntary.
The Labour Party had first used all women-shortlists in the selection of candidates for the 1997 general election to increase its number of women MPs. 38 candidates were selected via all-women shortlists in 1997, 35 of whom were elected. This policy was found to breach the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 and there were no all-women shortlists at the 2001 general election. The Act was subsequently amended by the Sex Discrimination (Election Candidates) Act 2002 to allow political parties to use all-women shortlists. At the 2010 General Election, all-women shortlists were used to select 63 candidates, 28 of whom were elected.
The Speaker’s Conference’s final report supported the proposed extension of the 2002 Act to enable the use of all-women shortlists until 2030; this was legislated for in the Equality Act 2010.
On 18 February 2013, the Guardian reported that plans for MPs to job share in parliament were being developed by the Liberal Democrats in an effort to increase the number of women elected. Ruth Fox, of the Hansard Society, commented on the proposals on the Huffington Post blog and argued that job-shares for MPs would be a marginal solution for a major problem. A recent Private Member’s Bill, the Representation of the People (Members’ Job Share) Bill 2012-13, called for job-sharing for MPs.
In the first debate on the Speaker’s Conference, Dame Anne Begg said she believed that parties must adopt specific mechanisms to improve the diversity of their MPs and that pressure should continue to ensure the widening of Parliamentary representation. MPs will discuss these issues again when the House of Commons holds its second debate on the Speaker’s Conference in 2014, a year before the next general election.
This article has been written to coincide with Parliament Week 2013 which has the theme Women and Democracy.
Author: Isobel White